Have you ever heard of the Greek historian Polybius? He was super popular during Classic Greece’s Hellenistic period, their golden age of art and culture. Born around 200 BC, he was responsible for writing and preserving the history of his lifetime in detail, covering many famous battles and government changes, as well as giving insight into the collapse of the Roman Republic, and how it became the famous Roman Empire. In addition to that, he was partially responsible for the idea of “Separation of Powers” a concept where the government is separated into branches. This idea was adopted by the frame workers of the United States, and subsequently many republics after that, so he’s kind of important in the sense that he inspired some of the greatest governments of our time.
However, I’ll be looking at one of his lesser known ideas, anacyclosis, and how it can give us some insight into the future of the world’s politics and policy. Although he didn’t invent the concept (that honor goes to Plato and Aristotle), his work with describing the concepts of the two are often referenced as the source material of the idea. In essence, Anacyclosis is the idea that the order (that is, government which doesn’t encourage chaos) in the world goes through several distinct changes over time, all of which eventually revert back to a different point in a cycle of power between one and many. Although he did not invent the cycle (as mentioned before), his sequence of events is the most notable aspect of the theory, and they are ordered as follows:
(Quick note: parts “a” and “b” of step 2 are supposed to be their own steps, as the original model is supposed to have seven steps. However, for the sake of simplification, I’ve combined them into one.)
A few observations: As the cycle makes its way downward, the more likely it becomes for the cycle to go back up to the top of the cycle, and for society to revert back to monarchy rule. Furthermore, as it makes its way down, the more chaos is present in the system, but so is more freedom present. As the cycle hits rock bottom, total chaos ensues, and the cycle almost always reverts back to the top. You’ve also probably noticed that this model proposes a cynical view of humanity, assuming that we’ll always become corrupt with ourselves and our own gains, and slowly become more disordered as we go. Lastly, you can see that there are three main types of government used by the model: rule by one, rule by the few, and rule by the many.
So, what exactly does this mean? Are you questioning the oversimplification of society at large, or the plausibility of the ideas presented by this theory? Political theorists Cicero and Machiavelli have both backed the ideas and used the concepts in many of their works, so we know it must have some merit (who are they? Their names are linked), so that leads us back to the first question: what does this all mean? If you want to know the future, you have to look at the past, so, can we apply this theory to the past? Let’s analyze the cycle and see where it fits into the world’s established timeline.
According to Polybius’ model, all societies start out with a primitive form of monarchy, which seems to line up with what other political philosophers think, as well as fitting with the general consensus of the world at large. Most Middle Eastern and European societies were organized around absolute rulers after the dawn of the first civilizations all over the center of the Eurasian supercontinent, such as Egypt and Sumer. Both had vast lands, grand cultures, and advanced technology for the time; things seemed to be working. Later in the colonial period, we discovered that tribal societies all around the world had similar structures of government, with a central ruler guiding the population’s lives. However, the cycle predicted next that either great prosper, or great disorder would ensue afterwards, perhaps one right after the other. Going back to ancient Egypt, we saw a once great civilization go through many wars to unite the two nations of upper and lower Egypt, followed by a golden age (sounds like kingship), after which a several selfish and/or unqualified rulers led the empire into the hands of Alexander the Great, and subsequently into the Roman Empire (sounds a lot like tyranny).
Next, societies are supposed to come under the control of the upper class of civilization, as a direct result of the failure of the monarchy. Going back to our example, when Egypt was taken over after the collapse of Macedonia, Rome installed an aristocratic government in Egypt, officially making is a province of the empire, run by aristocratic leaders. Even though the aristocrats of Egypt were technically being controlled by the monarchs of Rome, it still mirrors the Anacyclotic idea of a bad series of kings being ousted b the more capable, high class society. You could even argue that the Roman Empire was partially controlled by aristocrats, as well as the power of the emperor was backed by the highly bureaucratic system of governors installed in the realms of the empire. All in all, we can clearly see that the power of the king is no longer the high law, as he needs to answer to assistants and senators to get anything reasonable done on a mass scale. Even then though, the empire still became to large to manage, and after a series of several uprisings, the empire collapsed into 2 half’s, then in to several dozen pieces at the hands of peasant revolts, or in other words, the aristocratic rule collapsed into oligarchy, and subsequently democracy (citizens no longer answered to Rome), then ochlocracy (citizens no longer answered to anybody).
Applications for the Theory
Although this is clearly not the best example of this theory put to historical practice, I nonetheless chose it to demonstrate anacyclosis, because it shows best how a strong, central power, can easily collapse into disorder and chaos. It took only a century or two for the largest country (at the time) to break up into the many kingdoms of what would soon become medieval Europe. If you want a more detailed example of the lower half of the theory, look to the Holy Roman Empire, a large democratic system of small kingdoms and nation states working together to expand and grow. Greedy kings took hold of the somewhat democratic lands (hey, they had elections and meetings) and consolidated the small parts into large, authoritarian states (an example of going from “democracy” to “monarchy”.
So, we’ve seen that this theory is very much a part of our world, so how do we get to address the main topic of this article: what this all means about the next century of politics. Now, I hate to keep backtracking to the past, but in order to answer the question, we need to go back one more time, to 1900, to get an idea of where we stand today. The 20th was the last century of modern monarchy: The maritime empire of Britain still reigned supreme around the world, and many of the worlds countries were run by kings. During the first half, we saw an aristocratic transition to alternative forms of government, where fascist figures like Hitler and Lenin overthrew their leaders and installed one party system (rule by the few) in Germany and Russia. During the last half of the century, the supreme power of the western world helped to develop many third world kingdoms in Africa and Asia into democracy’s, which has held up until today. So in short, were currently living the democracy phase of the model.
Original Question: Where will we be in the 22nd century?
Now that we know what anacyclosis is, who supported it, how to apply it to the past, and where we are today, we now have enough information to revisit and answer our initial question, and topic for this article. If were trying to see where we change next, there are really only four options: Staying where we are in the democratic phase, descending into chaos with ochlocracy, going back to absolute rule with monarchy, or being overthrown by wealthy businessmen with aristocracy (the popular option for conspiracy theorists). So, where are we heading to next? The cycle dictates that in about 10 to 50 years or so, we should descend into a state of chaos and disorder brought on by riots and disorder, followed by an authoritarian government in the 22nd century, so according to Polybius, the future is pretty bleak.
However, the others could all happen, so don’t get to discouraged. If a few super rich and powerful people got fed up with the way things are now, and decided to make a pact to change the world, they could in theory do that, and get some serious political influence, essentially reverting some parts of the world to aristocratic rule. If just one super-powerful guy wanted to do the same, we could go back to monarchy. If we find a way to work together and keep the globe peaceful, however, we might just stay where we are now in the democracy phase.
I’m very optimistic, so if you ask me, I think we’re probably going to stay where we are. Like most pre modern theorists, they didn’t count on a little thing called the Industrial revolution; which gave rise to the Information revolution, and the Imagination revolution. It’s now possible to feed more people, educate more people, and communicate with more people than ever before, at all time low costs. It would be pushing it, and it would be difficult, but if we just had better logistics systems’, and distribution channels, it would be possible to feed and educate everyone in the world. My point is, that we’re living in a vastly different world than Polybius, Machiavelli, or Aristotle lived in, and if we work together, we could potentially avoid the huge power vacuum and dystopian society that they all predicted would result after conditions we are experiencing right now.
So, In Short
The Anacyclosis model of Polybius predicts that, in the next fifty years or so, an abundance of freedom and self-thought, as well as poor economic decisions and too much power at the top, will lead to a temporary era of disorder and mob rule, similar to that of the French revolution. After that, an authoritarian government may develop, led by monarchs or aristocrats. However, since he didn’t account for technological advances once thought to be impossible during his time, there is still a chance that we could continue on our current democratic track into the 22nd century.
Thanks for reading everyone! I obviously can’t give any definitive answers, because I can’t see into the future, but hopefully, if you were curionus, you found my explanations and predictions for the theory to be useful or insightful. Once again, thanks for reading, and if you have any comments, or liked the article, please don’t forget to leave a comment down below, or show me a little love on my social pages (linked at the top). I’ll is seeing you at the end of the week for a review, so don’t go away!
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